Friday, 20 November 2009:
As we were making our way through Little Italy, looking for a cafe where we might have some dessert and a coffee, we passed a doorman to an Italian restaurant. Instead of trying to interest us in his establishment like other doormen did, he shouted, virtually into my ears. I turned around, startled. My fight or flight reflex quickly booted up.
But he wasn’t addressing me. He was talking to the doorman of another restaurant across the narrow street. Theirs was an across-the-street type of conversation.
I told my friend I’ve seen this type of behaviour in Italy before. Actually, I’ve also seen something similar in Greece where housewives on the 3rd or 4th floors of separate apartment buildings would lean out their respective windows to conduct a conversation.
“This is not Italian behaviour,” my friend said. “This is New York behaviour.”
In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, lovingly referred to as The Met for short, a guard (or whatever you call those officers who are stationed in the galleries making sure visitors do not touch the artworks) likewise conducted a conversation with another guard. Because they couldn’t leave their assigned places, they just raised their voices to talk to each other while standing 15 – 20 metres away. All the visitors respected the space, either keeping silent or whispering to each other. Only the guards broke the quiet.
The Met’s arrangements are rather disorderly. Except for broad groupings – European Art 19th Century or Greco-Roman Art – the exhibits are seldom organised in any meaningful thematic way. My suspicion is that many of the exhibits were gifts to the museum with some stipulation that they should be kept together as a collection, with the name of the donor prominently displayed. In fact, each room carries a name. As a result, the museum may find it hard to rearrange the exhibits thematically.
Its collection however is immense. One could spend two whole days wandering around and still feel that one has not done the place justice.
The Met is a busy place. One has to queue up to buy tickets and then queue up again to check bags in. Quite often, it’s difficult to take a photo of an object without some other visitor unwittingly getting into the frame. But the crowd was not evenly distributed. The Greco-Roman and European Renaissance rooms attracted the most people. The Modern Art, Medieval European, Japanese and Chinese sections saw significantly less traffic. The quietest rooms – almost no one but myself – were those in the section termed “Near East”. I suppose it is quite natural for a society to be more interested in its own roots, than in alien cultures.
This concludes New York. Tomorrow I fly to Port of Spain, the capital of Trindad. This Caribbean country has a climate very much like Singapore’s, whereas New York daily maximum this week has been a lovely 11 to 15 degrees. Trinidad’s total population is just 1.3 million; Port of Spain itself may house only half of that. By contrast, New York City has nearly 8.5 million. Yup, it will be a change.